The outcome of this game is very randomly dependent on initial conditions that you cannot effectively choose. Furthermore, some of the mechanics make no sense and exacerbate the instability of the game. These pretty well undermine the advantages derived from having a good turn flow system.
What is the prime example of this? Resources are randomly distributed, are hidden, and never change. Villages built on regions with no special resource produce nothing at all, nada. These poor regions include not only the specially inclement regions such as mountain and jungle, but also the ordinary plains tiles, and what's left over after an event tile has gone off. So, it is quite possible to be blessed with several resource tiles, or be stuck with none at all, even in a region as large as South America... in that case you will be subsisting on the 10 gold per turn minimum for quite some time! This is true to the extent that the supposedly amazing 'free technology' event is, though not as bad as the plague, often a major letdown.
What makes this even worse is the existence of the Monopoly: if you can collect 3 of any one resource, no matter what it is, you get 20 gold per turn. 4 of the resource, make that 40 gold. And if you can somehow get all 5 of the resource that are printed, it's 80 gold. This is senseless on three levels.
First off, it doesn't matter what it is. For example, in the 21st century or even most of the 20th, any nation which controlled all of the world's horses, or even grapes, or cinnamon, would not derive from that wealth anything approaching, say, the GNP of America east of the Mississippi (which they would, in the game).
Second, even assuming the resource is highly necessary, though, it's all backward. The benefit of getting a monopoly is that you can charge high prices when reselling the good; not in having a lot of something for yourself. To be more specific, suppose that you have the only access to oil. You are charging monopoly prices. Then someone discovers more oil. In real life, your prices have to drop due to competition. Even if you form a cartel (like OPEC), the prices will not be higher than they were when the supply was lower. In the game, this behavior is reversed. If they discover more, your monopoly income is unaffected (and they gain virtually nothing), unless they trade the extra resource to you (for half the change in profit, perhaps), in which case the total revenue is greatly increased.
But that absurdity isn't the problem. Great games are frequently built on more absurd mechanics (see Avalon Hill's take on Civilization for an excellent example). But when the absurd game mechanics do not promote fun play, that's not good.
And so we come to the third way the monopoly rules are senseless. Suppose someone gets a 3-resource monopoly in the first few turns (which does happen, entirely randomly, not at all due to skill). If a player does that, their production will rival that of the rest of the world, and even the teamwork of all other players may fail to stop the collossus. This is exacerbated if you are playing with fewer than 6 players, as each player will have more room to expand (increasing the likelihood of one or two players getting monopolies, or for one player getting a 4-resource monopoly). Especially with the advanced rules, which make trade very difficult, you may not be able to arrange compensating monopolies through trade for a long time.
There are many other weirdities and poor design choices. None of them are nearly as crippling as the back-assward monopoly system, but the cumulative screwiness adds up into an unappealing whole.
Poor design choices that are conceptually weird:
- If you discover Masonry (an entry-level tech), you get the Hanging Gardens for free. The effect of the Hanging Gardens is to give you two settlers for free. Note that 2 settlers are 5 gold more expensive than Masonry itself! And to make it worse, Masonry is within the starting budget. So, whoever goes first gets 5 points (2 for the tech, 3 for the wonder) and 5 free gold.
- You start with two spearmen, but until the discovery of bronze working, cannot build more. I have been told that in the second edition, certain techs are handed out at the beginning, so this is not a problem.
- The ability to build boats requires mathematics. Given that Oceania was populated by Homo Erectus, I'm tempted to call that dependence flaky. In any case, it really stalls the game.*
- When you trade, you don't trade just the resource, you trade the whole production of the city sitting on the resource. In fact, you lend the city card to the other player. Also, since orientation of the card indicates the size of city, and the players are probably going to rotate the card while passing it, and there's nothing saying which city is which... you can see how this would get very messy!
Poor design choices that are not really weird:
- The 1-gold coin looks just like the 5 gold coin; the 10 gold coin looks just like the 20 gold coin; the 50 gold coin looks just like the 100 gold coin.
- All of the army pieces are the same color, with ownership indicated via flagbearers. They could have gone the Axis and Allies route, and made (fewer) army pieces in each color, suggesting usage of chips to indicate quantity.
- One of the players' colors, gray, is close to the grayish brown color of the army pieces.
- Though this was changed in an erratum, the original rules made city improvements belong to only one era (Ancient, Medieval, Gunpowder/Industrial, Modern), and when that era ended, the improvement evaporated. Some improvements could only be bought at the end of an era... what was the point? Even with the erratum, some improvements have a much shorter shelf life than the ROI period.
- Building the UN almost gaurantees that you immediately win. Therefore, no one wants to buy the last tech required for Communism, because then they will have too little money to actually buy Communism itself (which gives you the UN).
Things that are just weird:
- Settlers moving in the wilderness (say, from a mountain to the jungle and on into a desert, or any combination of the above) are twice as fast as cavalry on a forced march between friendly cities on a flat plain. Tanks are no faster either.
- Improvements do only one thing (earn money), so a granary is the same thing as a library or aqueduct -- they all give you a 'gear'. A courthouse is the same as a castle or a hospital -- they all give you a 'happy face'. Gears are much better than happy faces once you have big cities.
- It takes the same amount of effort to make a village happy as it does to make a city happy. But that's OK, because all happiness does is increase production by 2 (before productivity multipliers, blah blah).
- As soon as anyone discovers a technology, everyone gains access to it. But they have to pay licensing fees! Except for the free upgrades within era. So, like, biplanes can get a free upgrade to stealth jets if someone else does the research for you.
- There is only one sea unit for each era. So, when your Battleships automatically upgrade to Aircraft Carriers (for free, of course), there is absolutely no difference to combat, except against really old ships like frigates, which you can wipe the floor with already anyway.
- Aside from building the UN, the one thing you can do that gives you the most points is to discover Theology.
- Though most secret tiles are kept hidden until built on, mountains, jungles, and deserts immediately become public information.
- The map is really distorted. Like, to the extent that with a boat in the Mediterranean, it is easier to get to America than Britain. Heck, you can't even walk to Norway from Russia.
- A region of Siberia is named 'Sibirskoye', apparently in a misguided attempt to seem authentically local. But 'Sibirskoye' is an adjective, not a name, so anyone who knows Russian finds it jarring. Imagine a map naming the British Isles 'British' instead of 'Britain'. I imagine there are similar issues elsewhere on the map.
Basically, in order to play this game, you need a bushelful of house rules. Fortunately, many such sets have been posted on multiplayer game discussion web sites. Once I have playtested my set, I may include them here...
*DejaMorgana says: The limitation on boat building may not be particularly realistic, but it helps balance the game against people randomly sending boats out across the oceans and creating mega-empires early in the game. I haven't played the board game, but I imagine they put that rule in for the same reason they limited ocean travel in the ancient era of the Civ computer games.
In reality, you're correct in saying that Oceania was settled by humans in very primitive boats - but they spread out one island at a time, almost randomly, and very rarely maintained any cohesive political or cultural system spanning more than a couple of islands. There is no way to simulate that in the game except by limiting sea travel as they did. You could pretend that the people of your civilization really do have boats crossing the seas in ancient times - but nobody ever hears back from them, so they have for all practical purposes dropped off the map. This is probably pretty close to what ancient islanders actually felt.
That works for Homo Erectus, but, say, the Odyssey is set (and was even written!) well before the flourishing of mathematics in Greece. I don't think sea travel should be a starting tech, but it should not be as far up the tech tree as it is. Really, it's almost all the way to the middle ages.